The Uk government has passed the Genetic Technology Act, a landmark move that will surely be celebrated by smallholder farmers and environmental groups across the country. In addition to reducing pesticide use and enhancing food production, the act offers an exciting opportunity to identify and develop climate-resilient crop varieties.
What is the Genetic Technology Act?
Simply put, the Genetic Technology Act will streamline the regulatory and approval process for 'precision-bred' crops, which target genetic changes not attainable through traditional breeding or natural processes.
Royal Assent was received from the King, as well as a majority of support in the House of Commons, resulting in the law being passed on 23rd March 2023. This is a step forward in improving crop breeding techniques in England, as well as enabling the development and marketing of gene-edited crops.
What is gene editing?
Gene editing is a technique that makes precise and targeted changes to DNA. For agriculture, this can be applied to food crops that are more resilient to local environmental pressures, such as climate changes, diseases and pest pressures.
One of its celebrated benefits is that the technology builds on the increasing availability of pangenomes (set of genes) and whole genome DNA sequences for many crop varieties, which offer a level of accuracy and predictability that in earlier attempts has been unavailable when attempting to modify crop genomes.
Climate resilience and food security
On a societal level, the technology is a step forward in increasing biodiversity in cropping systems. Increasing the formulation of crops is especially important in a world where over 2.5 billion people are dependent on them. Globally, wheat is one of the most widely farmed crops, and rising temperatures are affecting farming practices. The technology may enable the introduction of heat-tolerant wheat crop traits that maintain high yields.
For smallholder farmers seeking to create a space for themselves in the agriculture market, genetically editing technologies offer them a chance to become active players. For these farmers, the technology will accelerate the delivery of improved varieties better resistant to climate change effects such as increased drought.
The technology ensures that commercial crop varieties' genes are edited directly in elite breeding lines, eliminating the need for the backcrossing technique usually used in conventional plant breeding. This reduces the time needed to develop an improved variety by nearly two-thirds and eliminates the linkage drag that is impossible to eliminate in conventional backcross breeding. Taking a step back from what this act means to farmers in the UK, the passage may serve as a stepping stone for low-and middle-income countries seeking to ensure food security.
Risks of genome editing crops
No doubt genetically modified crops offer a wealth of future benefits. However, as the act is still in its infancy, there are inherent risks associated with the development of technology based crop varieties that must be considered.
In addition to providing smallholder farmers with easier access to relevant technology tools, the act makes it possible for them to produce disease-resistant and drought-tolerant crops. There are, however, concerns about how wealthy players will benefit more from this act.
In accessing genome editing tools, costs must be taken into account. Multinational corporations and large-scale farmers have an advantage over smallholder farmers engaging in alternative agricultural systems such as organic agriculture due to the immense costs involved in creating genetically edited crops.
Since the technology breaks and bypasses natural reproductive barriers that occur in nature, environmental concerns must be taken into account. During the development of the technology, environmental groups criticised the technology for its harmful environmental consequences similar to those of chemical or radiation-induced mutations.
In addition, the process is followed by extensive field evaluations in target environments before being delivered to farmers. As a result, only superior crops would be chosen rather than accounting for all agronomic and consumer factors.
Creating equal opportunities
The execution of the act is still in its infancy, so mitigating risks must be considered at this stage. To ensure this is achieved, an effective approach must be implemented to ensure that the technology is and remains accessible to all who will use it to democratise its benefits particularly resource-poor farmers and consumers already struggling under the cost of living crisis.
In light of the increasing importance of climate change in food security debates, this act may play a critical role in protecting future generations from climate change consequences. Despite the risks, when looking at the long-term benefits of genetic editing technology, the ability to create resilient crops will mean that on a global scale, there will be a greater ability to develop a sustainable, vital food supply.
The Genetic Technology Act is still in the early stages of being implemented, so for now, it appears we will have to wait to see just how innovative the act and genetically edited crops will be.